Category Archives: history

Tracking Death

The Washington Post has created a gruesome but necessary database that tracks those shot and killed by police. The database was begun in 2015 after the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officers led to the discovery that many police killings were never recorded in the FBI database.

The data is clear: young, black men are killed more often than others.

Unfortunately, the database focuses on shootings so this morning’s news about the cousin of a Black Lives Matter co-founder who was killed by police with a taser may not be included. The young man from Washington, D.C. was visiting family in Los Angeles for the holidays. The video, released at the request of the family, shows his fear, driven by his sense that he was probably going to die like so many others. It will stay with me, alongside George Floyd calling for his mother. I won’t post it but encourage you to watch it. I think about Emmett Till’s mother who insisted the casket stay open so people were forced to confront the truth.

Today’s Challenge: Five White Anti Racists

Book Cover of Black History Saved My Life: How My Viral Hate Crime Led to an Awakening by Ernest Crim III

I follow Ernest Crim on Instagram and have learned so much from him about being Black in America from history to present day. In a recent post, he challenged white people to list five white anti racists, and for white parents to encourage their children to adopt one or more of them as role models.

Not surprisingly, John Brown was the first person the came to my mind as he does show up in American history classes. I also thought of Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison, both from the same era as Brown. I wondered about Eleanor Roosevelt and a search found this interview with Vernon Jarrett who describes Roosevelt’s growth as an anti racist. So, I’m up to four…Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago’s Hull House, also came to mind. This time the search revealed the complexities that often surround supposedly “good” white people: Addams was close friends with Ida Bae Wells whose push back on Addams’ views on lynching helped her grow. But, there are still questions about her general views on Black people as being culturally inferior, a typical progressive white view of the time, and Hull House rarely housed Blacks, focusing instead on immigrants.

A larger Google search provided a list compiled by Teaching While White. It includes both old and new white anti racists and I encourage you to check it out. It helped jog my memory with a few more names, mostly abolitionists, and widened my perspective. I’m planning on a bit more reading and research and may choose my own role model for the year.

Backyard History

Last month, I took a quick trip up the Eastern Shore to Salisbury, Maryland, and then on to Annapolis to visit with family. I hadn’t been over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel for years. Hampton Roads was its bustling self, of course, but the traffic fell away as I headed north on Route 13, over and under the Bay, touching down briefly on Fisherman’s Island where my husband and I once took a nature walk to see terns, and then onto the Delmarva peninsula.

I was immediately reminded of the experience of taking the Jamestown Scotland Ferry from Williamsburg to Surry: you leave suburbia behind and find yourself in the rural South, fields dotted with small houses and barns, chickens wandering the front yard with a row or two of collards in a winter garden, and, in the few small towns, a post office, gas station and dollar store. I could have been driving along a road near my own home except for the flatness that reached to the horizon.

Harriet Tubman Statue

Both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were Eastern Shore natives. I didn’t have time to visit the sites on the Harriet Tubman Byway and the road to the National Historical Park was flooded, but I did visit the Harriet Tubman Statue on the grounds of Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland. The sign features a quote from Douglass about Tubman: “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.” For good reading about Tubman, I can recommend The Tubman Command, a historical fiction biography of this fascinating woman that gets beyond the myth and includes details about the raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina, which Tubman led and which freed over 700 slaves.

Viking Pranksters

One series I binged watched in December was Secrets of the Viking Stone, a documentary created by actor Peter Stormare (better known as the wood chipper guy in the movie Fargo) to explore the origins of the Kensington Runestone. The stone, covered with runic etchings, was discovered in the late 1800s by Olof Öhman, a Swedish farmer, as he cleared some poplar trees in his field. Eventually, the stone was deemed a hoax, and the farmer himself ridiculed and ostracized for his claims.

Stormare learned about the stone when he was filming Fargo in Minnesota and found a connection to the disgraced farmer as they came from the same county in Sweden. He hoped, with his investigations, to clear Olaf’s name by proving the stone is a real artifact and that Vikings had made it far inland long before Christopher Columbus. He and his sidekick, Elroy Balgaard, a historian, practice wide-ranging research from hosting a happy hour with locals to buying metal detectors to road tripping to the east coast. The second season ends without a definitive conclusion, and we aren’t sure about a season three. While some of their experts and historians seem legitimate, I almost gave it up when their main supporter suggested it wasn’t Vikings that made and buried the stone but…wait for it…the Knights Templars.

While it would be nice to think the stone is real, North American runestone hoaxes is a category unto itself in Wikipedia. In addition to carving and hiding fake stones, pranksters have buried real artifacts in false locations. Turns out those Vikings have a sense of humor. Of course, Stormare and Balgaard never mention this proliferation of hoaxes during the show. But, it’s all good: it was a fun romp through history and archaeology and a reminder that, despite our hyper-connected world, there is much we don’t know about the past. Who knows? Maybe it was the Templars: as much as there is no evidence in favor of the theory, there also isn’t any evidence disproving it.

The Prophecy of the Talking Heads

Movie Poster for True Stories

I don’t reread books. But, I do rewatch movies. I have about ten or so that I sink into when I need a break from the world.

Yesterday, I ended up with True Stories, David Byrne’s 1986 satire of small town life with the soundtrack mostly written by Byrne and performed by his band The Talking Heads and various cast members. Once again, I was reminded that, within his satire, Byrne mostly got the future right, from sprawling suburbs to burgeoning conspiracy theories to emptying downtowns. At its heart, the film is the story of human beings struggling to maintain some semblance of control in an increasingly chaotic world.

As with most prophecies, we don’t always understand them at the time. I remember loving the movie and the music but missing the larger message when I first saw it on the big screen all those years ago. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles and going to graduate school at UCLA, and there were plenty of examples of Byrne’s vision for Virgil, Texas, already coming true throughout California. But, in 1986, I think the sense of the power of progress outweighed the potential downsides presented by the doomsayers.

My modern literature professor at the time made a comment that has stuck with me. He observed that modern and contemporary writers often lament the loss of innocence and fundamental disconnect from natures that seem to come with progress. He went on to comment that he had trouble helping his undergraduates understand this point of view. After all, living in the concrete sprawl of Los Angeles, they saw parking lots not as eyesores but as a place to park their sports cars.

If you haven’t ever watched True Stories, it is available at various streaming outlets. Two clips, in particular, show Byrne’s prescience. One features the “perfect” family of the CEO of Varicorp, the town’s computer manufacturer. The parents do not speak directly to each other, instead using their son and daughter to communicate. In the clip, the CEO played by Spalding Gray, uses the dinner table to envision the new world order:

The second clip features John Ingle as an evangelical preacher with a brief appearance of Jo Harvey Allen, simply known as the lying woman. We wade into the world of religious prophecy and conspiracy theory, underscored by the Talking Heads’ song, “Puzzlin’ Evidence”. (I can’t embed so click the song title to access.)

These two clips give a good idea of the tone of the film and I hope they entice you to watch the whole thing. According to Wikipedia (although it needs a citation), the film was not commercially successful but has become a cult classic.